He told his players as much in the locker room as their 20-19 loss to the previously winless New York Giants still burned on the MetLife Stadium scoreboards outside. While the arithmetic of a possible tie might have inched his team closer to the NFC East title he has decided to chase, he is also pursuing something bigger, far less tangible than the 1-5 record Washington is taking to the bottom of the division standings.
He has talked a lot these past few months about building a “culture,” but what he’s really trying to do is change a mentality. He’s trying to pull an organization that hasn’t understood winning for some time to a place where victories are to be expected. And what better place for him to show that than on the 2-yard line of an empty stadium in the second month of a rebuild that’s taking longer than he expected?
“Why not take that opportunity?” he asked during his postgame news conference.
Rivera was talking about the logic of the two-point conversion attempt following Cam Sims’s touchdown catch with 36 seconds left in a game that Washington had seemed destined to lose for much of the day. Sure, he could have called for an extra point, hoped to win a coin toss and maybe gotten a quick overtime touchdown. But there’s an emotional element to football that the old linebacker in Rivera embraces, the part of him that played for Mike Ditka and the 1985 Chicago Bears, a zeal for winning that he must wonder whether this team he has inherited truly comprehends.
“I’m playing to win. I’m trying to get our players to understand this is how we’re going to do things,” he said Sunday. “We’re going to do things to the max. We’re going to play to win football games.”
Out of context, his words have the ring of coaching cliches, but the desperation he feels now is bigger than a few slogans tossed in a news conference. He’s quickly reaching the halfway point of a one-season rebuild, and the need to establish a hungrier approach remains.
He has said, many times, that he wanted this job because he liked the young talent on Washington’s roster. His early Carolina Panthers teams were older than this one. Their experience might have helped bring the winning, but it meant they also aged poorly making a Super Bowl run. With Washington, he saw the potential for a more sustained period of success.
And yet the young team he got hasn’t always had the fire he might have expected. His benching of quarterback Dwayne Haskins almost two weeks ago was in part because of Haskins’s work habits since the start of the season, people with knowledge of the situation have said, but the decision to demote him to third string wasn’t just a message to Haskins; it was a message to the rest of the players as well about the approach he was looking for out of all of them. Even as Rivera battles cancer and has weeks where he looks as if he is barely able to stand, the coach has remained on the field, a symbol of the grind he wants from his players.
“I think everyone in the league knows who Ron is and how Ron is,” tight end Logan Thomas said.
On Sunday, Rivera called for a two-point conversion at a moment when most would have said the smart thing was to kick an extra point. He also twice went for it on fourth down, and his team converted on each attempt. This was the “Riverboat Ron” everyone has heard about, the coach who decided to deviate from the conservative decision-making that marred his first two years with Carolina, a change often credited for helping the Panthers win three straight NFC South titles.
Of course, his quarterback was Cam Newton then, a league MVP during that run who was surrounded by other high-level players. This time, he is trying the same things with Kyle Allen throwing the ball to a limited group of receivers and playing behind an often overmatched offensive line. But perhaps some of the lack of talent, his words and actions seem to suggest, is more a lack of willingness to fight.
He said Sunday’s loss will “eat” at him because in the end it’s a loss, his team’s fifth straight. But it was a risk an old linebacker who once tackled ballcarriers for Iron Mike Ditka had to take.
“I don’t care this is my first year [with Washington],” Rivera said. “I don’t care that we have a group of young guys who have to learn. We’re trying to teach them, we’re going to teach them, and they’re going to learn how to win, and at the end of the day that’s what we’re here for.”
Even if doing so meant taking a most unsatisfying defeat.